Autopilot Technology: Driving Us Toward a Greener, Safer Future

Written By: Brittney B.

Edited By: Assen Gueorguiev

Since the dawn of computer technology, the self-driving car has been an inevitable, if distant, symbol of the possibilities that lie in store for the automotive industry. It teases of a future without accident fatalities or traffic jams, and it promises to save everything that useful consumer technologies should: time, lives, money, and even energy. Now, thanks to Google, Tesla and a few other enterprising manufacturers, that convenient and efficient future might not be as distant as we thought.

Tesla's biggest step yet toward driverless cars

Some automakers are gradually dipping their toes into the autopilot realm, by offering individual features and driver-assist systems that automate everything from parallel parking to lane changes. Toyota, Lexus, BMW and Ford are just a few of the manufacturers that are gradually removing responsibilities from drivers and shifting them to the vehicles themselves, but others are even more ambitious.

Tesla's engineers are always at the forefront of efforts to increase efficiency, so it's no surprise that the sustainable automaker is getting a head start on this technology too. As of October 2014, autopilot hardware is a standard feature on every new Model S. Automatic additions include long-range sensors, cameras and a radar system. According to CEO Elon Musk, the car's updated software will use this new hardware to read and obey traffic signs, follow lane lines, detect and prevent potential collisions, and more.

Tesla - Autopilot Hardware Available on all MODEL S Vehicles, Effective Oct, 2014

Meanwhile, Google is continuing its global technology takeover with its own self-driving Google cars. These promising prototypes, which initially weren't even equipped with steering wheels, are already being used internally and tested on approved roads. However, the global giant's autopilot technology is still officially in the research stages, and insiders don't expect the cars to be commercially viable until 2020 or later. Recent media rumors also hinted at a possible Apple electric self-driving car around 2020. 

Google Self Driving Car/Technology. Also Known as the"MARSHMALLOW". 
Expected to be available to the general public in 2020

There's still no such thing as a completely road-ready production car that can drive itself. However, the closer companies like Tesla and Google get to perfecting a fully automated vehicle, the more potential benefits come into focus. Even in a world that's increasingly automated, a truly autonomous car would revolutionize everyday routines unlike any other invention in recent memory (except perhaps the car itself). It could also minimize one of the world's leading causes of preventable death, while one of its most promising benefits wasn't even a concern until recent decades: environmental efficiency.

Saving time could save energy too

In an effort to curb climate change and save consumers money, most automakers have focused on ways to phase out gasoline engines and carbon emissions. Fuel alternatives and energy-efficient powertrains are getting more and more common, and market demand continues to lean toward sustainability and efficiency. Tesla currently leads the way with the industry's most efficient battery, but if its autopilot hardware delivers on Musk's promises, it could add another dimension to the conversation about cars' carbon footprints.

Of all the inconveniences that self-driving cars would eliminate, almost every single one revolves around unnecessary waste. Autopilot hardware and software would handle all the operations that are currently susceptible to human error, from navigating and braking to parking and reacting to other vehicles. If calibrations are precise enough and road conditions are eventually optimized to increase autopilot efficiency, the impact on overall energy use could be monumental.

Modern drivers waste time and energy every time they brake unnecessarily, or slam on their brakes after failing to notice an obstacle. They also waste power when they drive around parking lots in search of a spot, make wrong turns, get lost in new places, and sit idling in traffic jams. Over time, all of these inefficiencies add up, and self-driving cars could potentially eliminate each and every one of them.

With a full network of self-driving cars on the roads, traffic congestion would become virtually nonexistent as vehicles monitored patterns, searched for the most efficient route, and communicated with the other vehicles on the road. Without congested streets, people would spend far less time on the road, and their cars would use much less energy as a result.

Practical complications still need to be sorted

Autopilot and driver-assistance technologies are promising features that will someday revolutionize the automotive industry, so it's no surprise that Tesla is already getting a head start and manufacturing cars with the necessary hardware. However, until the majority of passenger vehicles are equipped with these systems, total synchronization and safety won't be possible.

Optimized road conditions and standardized autopilot features will mostly depend on the actions and policy decisions of the planet's biggest governments. Legislation must catch up to autopilot capabilities before their safety and viability is a guarantee, but if consumers continue to push for more efficient vehicles, policy makers might take note too. 

Are you excited about the potential of self-driving cars? Do you think the first road-ready examples will be as safe as some hope, or will it all come down to trial and error? And if this technology really is accessible by 2020, how big of an impact could it have on overall energy consumption?